Blog and Essays

College Girl: Hope and Loss

It’s early summer and ordinarily about now, my elder daughter would be preparing for camp. But not this year. Instead, she’s starting an internship, learning to drive and making packing lists. She’s going to college in the fall.

I’m very excited for her and very proud, but some part of me would prefer time to stop (and not just because of the large term bills we’ll soon have to start paying). It’s very hard to imagine her not in the next room, studying, or showing up late for dinner, arguing with me by text (although I’m sure that will continue) and bubbling in with the latest news from school.

And does the world have to be such a mess?

The world certainly felt this intractable when I set out for college — Reagan had just been elected and it seemed very likely that we were all going to die in a nuclear winter.

Hopeless though it seemed, I wrote editorial after editorial excoriating Reagan and his administration for my college newspaper. One of my editorials (about prosecuting leaks, no less) was reprinted when I went back for my 25th reunion. I have it framed on my office wall to remind me of the bravery of youth; railing against the idiotic and illogical with the kind of sustained outrage only a 20 year old can muster.

But Reagan was nothing on Bush II. And Bush II was nothing on this yahoo, ignorant congress. Isaac Asimov wrote about a “cult of ignorance” in the United States in which I believe they could be charter members. And that cult is thriving: “The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life,” Asimov wrote. “Nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

Reagan was an early master of this; but he saw his limits and he knew when to make a deal.  This group on the other hand is without shame.

Despite their group’s name and their professed love of the constitution, the Tea Partiers, with their particular mixture of ignorance and cynicism, are very quick to curtail the constitution in favor of some imagined version of what it means to BE AMERICAN.

As a result, free speech is increasingly for corporations, freedom of religion means my religion’s right to operate at the expense of yours. The right to participate in a well-regulated militia is really the right of gun manufacturers to sell their wares with as little regulation as possible and the protection against illegal search and seizure matters less than supposedly showing resolve against terrorists by doubling down on that signal act of constitutional hari kari known as the Patriot Act.

To me, the genius of our American government does not lie in how well it would work if we all still wore wigs and rode around on horseback, but in how flexible and expansive our founders’ ideas turned out to be. It was revolutionary then to imagine that a country could run itself without a royal family (or a guillotine).  It’s just as revolutionary now that that same country could evolve to the point where it could elect a man of the same race as the slaves of those non-royals president.

In that spirit, our representatives should constantly be asking how the government could work for a wider and wider group of Americans. The rules that protected my immigrant parents from one country should also protect yours from another. All men are created equal doesn’t just mean white men and it doesn’t just mean men.

But can we keep evolving? Or is this it?

How are we ever going to face up to global warming when we’re held hostage to this group’s parsed, self-serving, short-term view of responsibility which allows them to eviscerate programs for poor people in the name of a backward looking economic policy that has been proven not to work in Europe and certainly has never worked here.

Will they ever stop chasing down imaginary conspiracies, holding the regular business of government hostage and refusing to deal with the president’s appointees — in some cases because they just don’t like the agencies — all in the name of defending a constitution they appear not to understand? And what of their explicit goal of stymieing a sitting president who is governing in a way that, ten years ago, would probably have been considered conservative? Do they really think, with their increasing political isolation, they will ever be able to do anything more than perpetuate the current stalemate? Or is that really their goal?

In effect the Tea Partiers are philosophical Luddites bashing at new ideas the way their forebears destroyed textile machinery. But it won’t help them hold back the world that is my daughter’s new normal, where gay marriage is celebrated rather than feared, where technology makes skills and borders obsolete and in which one of the greatest dangers may well be our American penchant for self indulgence, as entrenched as our affection for happy ignorance.

Of course, when I contemplate sending a child out into the world, I have to admit, I feel a little Luddish myself. It’s frightening. And sad, and feels like loss. And boy would I like to look backward. Can’t she stay home for one more year? Why does time have to pass? And what does that mean about me?

But as she goes out into the world, she represents hope. The world may be troubled, but our best hope is to have faith in the ingenuity of a bright young new generation. She will forge the way through. She will help us figure it out.

Our role is to facilitate. The best of parenting, like the best of politics, lies in empathy. How can I help you make this world work for you even better than it worked for me? We’ve established and extended the framework, now it’s time to have faith in its ability to bend without breaking.

And maybe, just maybe, her optimism should inspire us to new heights of our own. (At least until Thanksgiving and the mid-term elections.)

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